Authors Offer Holiday Tips For Liberating Stepparents from "Brady Bunch" Myths

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Award-winning new book aims to help stepfamilies survive the high-risk first years.

One out of every three couples now brings a child to their marriage. And about half of all Americans will at some point in their lives take part in stepfamily life.*

“Studies show that stepfamilies face the highest levels of stress and are more likely to split up during their early years,”** says William Merkel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-author of the newly released book, "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories And Advice For Stepfamilies," which is a 2004 Gold National Parenting Publications Award winner.

“Expectations of a ‘Brady Bunch’-style family where everyone has the same values and lifestyle can set stepfamilies up for failure, especially during the first few years,” he says. New stepfamilies often have these “Brady Bunch” expectations during the holiday season, he adds. “Instead of trying to behave a certain way, stepfamilies need to creatively and patiently create a life that suits their family members.”

Seven years ago, Merkel and his life partner and co-author Lisa Cohn were determined to weather the first tumultuous years of stepfamily life when they made a commitment to each other. With their three children from previous marriages, they formed what they now call the “Liberated Stepfamily.”

“We want to liberate stepfamilies from the fantasy that they have to act like traditional, first-marriage families where ‘all-for-one, one-for-all’ is the mantra—especially during the holiday season,” says Cohn, a writer whose work appears in national publications.

In their new book, they recount their experiences trying to unite Cohn’s urban, messy, health-food-centered lifestyle with Merkel’s suburban, tidy, pizza-and-chocolate-flavored life.

Their efforts were fraught with conflict, emotion and surprises. But they continually sought creative ways to peacefully and respectfully co-exist, despite their different cultures and values.

The result is anything but conventional. In their book, they recount why they:

• Keep separate refrigerators and checkbooks

• Decorated the Christmas tree with a “hers” side--hand-painted eggs and popcorn strings--and a “his” side--multi-colored, blinking lights and sparkling orbs and tinsel

• Established different TV rules for “his” kids and “her” kids

• Invited their ex-spouses over for Christmas

Cohn and Merkel can share their experiences forming their stepfamily with the hope of helping others going through the same growing pains. They are available for interviews, as well as Cohn’s son, Travis, (15), their “ours” child, Ally (6), and Cohn’s ex-husband.

Cohn and Merkel advise adults creating a new stepfamily:

• Clarify your role as stepparent: mom/dad, friend, aunt/uncle?

• Examine and let go of your “traditional,” first-marriage expectations.

• Don’t push to “blend” families—let it happen in its own time and let it take its own form.

• Master the art of silence. You don’t need to share all your negative feelings.

• Make the superhuman effort to get along with your ex-spouse and your new spouse’s ex.

• Once a week, create a “Love Bubble” with your spouse. Don’t talk about kids.

• Stepdads: Follow Merkel’s example and never give up on an unresponsive stepchild. Your efforts will be rewarded. ***

• Stepmoms: Work hard to avoid the “Give-too-much-and-feel-resentful” trap, especially during the holidays.

Lisa Cohn is an-award-winning writer whose stories about stepfamilies have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Mothering, Parenting, Brain, Child: The Magazine For Thinking Mothers, United Press International, Portland Tribune,, Your Stepfamily and other publications. Read her articles by visiting

William Merkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist who teaches at Providence Portland Medical Center and has a private practice. A former Associate Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University, he is a Fellow in the American Academy of Clinical Psychology and an Approved Supervisor in the American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy.

'One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies" ( ISBN 1-883991749; list price $16.95) is published by RiverWood Books. For more information, visit the authors’ website,


  • From Stepfamily Association of America

**About 60% of second marriages fail. Most second marriages fail during the early years of stepfamily life. It takes five to seven years for early tensions to abate in stepfamilies, according to three studies by E. Mavis Hetherington and others conducted 1989-2000: The Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage; The Hetherington and Clingempeel Study of Divorce and Remarriage; and The National Study of Nonshared Environment.

***Most stepfathers give up the struggle of connecting with resisting stepchildren after two years, according to the three Hetherington studies mentioned above.

Media Contacts:

Lisa Cohn, co-author,


Steve Scholl, RiverWood Books


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